The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

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Origen and divine dereliction

As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.

Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:

The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)

Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.

Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.

Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!

Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.

Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

Origen on Genuine Love

Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.

-1 John 4:7-8

I’ve been busy trying to do my research as well as trundling off to London for the British Patristics Conference, so my series about Eros for God is still in need of more thoughts, but this morning I read this in the Ancient Christian Devotional:

I think that any love without God is artificial and not genuine. For God, the Creator of the soul, filled it with the feeling of love, along with the other virutes, so that it might love God and the things which God wants. But if the soul loves something other than God and what God wants, this love is said to be artificial and invented. And if someone loves his neighbour but does not warn him when he sees him going astray or correct him, such is only a pretense of love. -Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, in Ancient Christian Devotional, Year A, p. 200.

But would the above mean that those who are not consciously in communion with God through Christ cannot love? I would say no for the following reasons: a. they are made in God’s image; b. God is love; c. Justin Martyr’s logos spermatikos working within them can keep the image and love of God alive enough to be true love.

However, perhaps what many of us think is love isn’t love? Perhaps it’s some sort of selfish feeling that has little to do with God or the good of the other person but makes us feel nice? Not always. But sometimes.

Heresy and the human spirit: Bede’s allegorical reading of Luke 17:11-19

Today, I was leading a tutorial discussion about Clement of Alexandria (150-215; saint of the week here) and Origen (185-254; on whose importance, see here), and my students were discussing the usefulness of allegory, of which Origen is a highly famed practicioner. How useful is it? How legitimate is it? And, in a colleague’s group, can we use it of the New as well as Old Testament? Origen says that we can use it of the New, although never neglecting the literal truth.

The Venerable Bede (672-735; saint of the week here) certainly thought you could allegorise the New Testament, and Mark Armitage over at Enlarging the Heart has helpfully given us a beautiful example of allegory expertly used in Bede’s discussion of Luke 17:11-19; it has been broken into three parts (first, second, third) on his blog. You should read them; each is pretty short.

For me, what resonates most strongly in Bede’s exegesis is the image of leprosy as heresy. Perhaps this is because I still self-identify as Anglican and see the Anglican churches of the West as deeply marred by heresy at this moment of history. Perhaps it’s also because I see the Fathers and their concern about heresy time and again being miscast as struggles for power, whereas my reading of Leo vs. the heretics (here) is not a power struggle, but a pastoral concern.

If heresy is like leprosy, this means it is a disease. It is something that you can acquire against your will. And, as Bede points out, as leprous skin is always mingled with healthy skin, heresy is always mixed with truth. The image is of a sick person, a sick world, a sick idea, that needs healing and restoration, not a bad person who needs condemning. Sometimes when we (I) get fired up about unorthodox persons in our (my) midst, we (I) lose sight of the need for healing by Christ  in their lives.

And, if we admit it, we may be a little unorthodox (heretical) ourselves, in need of that healing as well.

I like that this allegory puts Christ at the centre of the cure for heresy.

I also like Bede’s commentary on the nine who do not thank him. This is a warning to those of us who have it all together — I believe Nicaea and Chalcedon (indeed, all Seven Ecumenical Councils!), I believe in the Bible, I actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion. So my heresy is washed away. Well done.

Do we remember to thank Christ in humility, acknowledging that He is the source of any orthodox thought we have, the source of all spiritual health in us, doctrinal, moral, dogmatical, ethical?

So I approve of Bede’s use of allegory here. It follows Augustine’s exhortation in On Christian Teaching that a reading of Scripture that draws people further into love of God cannot be really wrong.

No time for Apocatastasis

As interesting as Origen and Apocatastasis are, my week in Oxford made me realise that I have a lot of other things to focus my mental energy and time on. Like brushing up on Roman history and keeping Latin going. Like the Latin Fathers, palaeography, the history of Latin literature, clausulae, theories and practices of translation – ancient and modern – keeping Greek going, Roman rhetoric, epistolography …..

The Apocatastasis Project (as if I have time on my hands to do this)

I have blogged about Origen (184/5–253/4, on his impact see here) and the concept of Apocatastasis before (here), in the context of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the debate surrounding universalism. At the time, I was unaware of the use of the word apokatastasis by St. Peter in Acts 3:21, and I boldly declared regarding this theological doctrine, ‘No, it’s not in Scripture.’ My flawed research has been taken to task, for which I am grateful, and now I am going to be thorough, sort of for the fun of it.

First, the terms. When referring to the theological concept as espoused by Origen et al., I shall use the Latinised spelling Apocatastasis, capital A, no italics. When referring to the Greek lexical term, I shall use the Hellenised spelling apokatastasis, lower case a, italicised.

Second, the method/outline of this project on Apocatastasis. First, I shall discuss what doctrine it is that we are discussing, exactly. What is Apocatastasis? We shall investigate the teachings of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) in particular; one of the questions we shall investigate is why their teachings of this name were condemned in the sixth century and suspect in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries. Two other illustrious Origenists shall be considered, the Cappadocian Fathers St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389/90) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (335–394, Saint of the Week here). We shall see to what extent their eschatological teachings and understanding of Judgement Day align with the “Origenist” teaching on Apocatastasis condemned in later years.

Once we have come to understand what the ancients understood theologically about Apocatastasis, we can consider modern writers and their contemplation of “universalism”. We shall look at Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Madeleine L’Engle (herself a reader of the Cappadocian Fathers), and George MacDonald (Saint of the Week here, discussion of his “universalism” here).

Met. Kallistos is a living Eastern Orthodox Bishop (website here) and patristics scholar who, like most Eastern Orthodox, could easily be considered “conservative”. Madeleine L’Engle was a popular Anglican author of the last half of the twentieth century (website here), most famous for her children’s/young adult novels such as A Wrinkle in Time. The only reason anyone has ever called her heretic is over the question of universal salvation; she is, nevertheless, very popular amongst Christians with a firm belief in eternal damnation. The third is George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Congregationalist pastor and novelist, the grand inspiration and “teacher” of popular “conservative” Anglican novelist, literary critic, and amateur theologian C S Lewis.

I have chosen these three because I believe they highlight different approaches to the question of universal salvation and Apocatastasis as well as pushing us to question the borders of orthodoxy, for all three are popular amongst conservative, orthodox believers, despite the unpopularity in such circles for theology of universal salvation (as we saw in the furor over Rob Bell).

We will then have set the stage for understanding this doctrine and how it has persisted to this day in differing guises. Having a clear understanding of Apocatastasis, we can then turn to the Scriptures and see whether or not Apocatastasis is in Scripture. This will be time to play with the writers of the Patristic, Mediaeval, and Reformation eras, part of the point of this blog.

We shall look at the occurrences of the word apokatastasis in Scripture, especially in Acts 3:21, but also in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the writers of the Apostolic and Patristic ages, including not only Sts. Peter and Paul, but also Origen (who composed a document called the hexapla that put various editions of the Septuagint in parallel columns with the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew) and the Cappadocians, as well as our friend Met. Kallistos.

Our interpretation shall at one level be lexical, giving the basic definition and nuances of the word bare of any text. Then we shall approach each text using the Talmudic exegetical method outlined by Weekend Fisher here. This approach is not entirely suited to the New Testament but will not be profitless. We shall also consider the ancient grammarians’ technique of textual interpretation that believes that the text interprets itself; taking holy Scripture as the entire text – something done early by the Fathers (as recounted by Lewis Ayres in a paper given at the University of Edinburgh in Autumn of 2010) – we shall consider what apokatastasis means both in its immediate context and in the rest of Scripture.

Having thus sought to understand the question and passages at hand in their own right, we shall turn to our forebears in the faith. What do they say about the passage? For the Acts passage, we shall look at St. John Chrysostom, the Venerable Bede, and others, relying in part on IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture because life is short and I don’t necessarily have time to scour the library for resources. The relevant Medieval commentators shall be considered as well as the famous Reformation commentators Calvin and Luther. From these considerations, we shall sound out the mind of the Great Tradition as to what St. Peter envisages when he refers to apokatastasis.

My hypothesis is that St. Peter’s apokatastasis, his “restoration”, will be similar to St. Irenaeus’ anakephalaiōsis, his “recapitulation.” If so, we shall move the discussion of Apocatastasis into a discussion of Recapitulation and what exactly the difference is. By so doing, we shall re-cover the ground concerning Origen/Origenism, the doctrine of Apocatastasis, and the modern adherents to related ideas.

Having done all of this, we will be able to make conclusions about Apocatastasis and whether it is in Scripture, and whether, if not in Scripture, it is compatible with Scripture. By so doing, we shall see what all the fuss was about in the old disputes and what the fuss is about in the new disputes, and we shall get to try out the older ways of reading the Bible advocated on this website. It will be Classic Christianity in action.

It will also take up a lot of posts; I have thus created a new category called “Apocatastasis Project” to be able to check them out quickly.